lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 17 18:00:00 MST 2002
Alan Wald, "Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the
Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left "
reviewed by Louise Michel
People's Weekly World Newspaper, Nov 16, 2002
It has become a commonplace in mainstream literary studies to argue that
the impact on writers of involvement in the U.S. Communist movement was
overwhelmingly negative. The argument usually goes something like this:
while gifted writers tried very hard to "mold" their creative talents to
meet the Party's "requirements" for committed writing, they ultimately were
unable to "limit" themselves in this way if they wanted to develop their
individual talent unimpeded and thus remain "good" writers. Otherwise, they
became "Party hacks," and what they wrote was perhaps effective propaganda,
but not "real literature."
Alan Wald, author of a number of valuable studies of U.S. "writing from the
left," has written an important new book, Exiles from a Future Time: The
Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left (paperback; University
of North Carolina Press). An exhaustive study of dozens of writers, the
book moves far beyond most previous studies in the breadth of its focus and
the depth of its political perspective. It is intended, as Wald puts it, as
a "collective biography" of the writers who "both shaped, and were shaped
by, the Communist cultural movement in mid-century." And it completely
debunks the argument that writing in the service of a broader revolutionary
movement always resulted in unhappy writers and bad writing!
Wald does not gloss over the tension that necessarily arose between and
within writers, and sometimes between writers and others in the Party, who
sought both to contribute to a collective progressive political project and
to express themselves in their own styles and idioms. As novelist and Daily
Worker columnist Mike Gold (born Itzok Granich) put it, the question was
how to "reconcile craft with commitment."
Although the attempt to do this sometimes resulted in some pretty clunky
writing, it just as often succeeded in giving writers a way to get outside
the limitations of bourgeois cultural standards that stressed individual
(rather than collective) expression. One fine example of this is Langston
Hughes' brief poem, "Johannesburg Mines."
"In the Johannesburg mines There are 240,000 natives working. What kind of
poem Would you make out of that? 240,000 natives working In the
In this poem, which Wald uses as an epigraph, Hughes acknowledges that the
fact of the exploitation of Black miners in South Africa, in effect, speaks
for itself, and that his proper role here, if he accepts representing these
miners as one of his responsibilities as a poet, is simply to foreground
this fact. The poem is eloquent and well crafted; it provides solid
evidence that Hughes is a talented poet.
But its purpose is not to draw attention to his talent. Rather, the
reader's focus is on the miners who labor underground in conditions the
poem causes them to wonder about, perhaps for the first time. The poet uses
his voice to give voice to the miners.
Unlike most other studies of U.S. Communist and Communist-inspired culture,
Wald's book examines not just the better-known writers such as Hughes, the
volatile Mike Gold, Meridel LeSueur, or Richard Wright. He also examines
the contributions of dozens of lesser known writers, poets and
screenwriters. For some readers this will be the most interesting part of
There is a fascinating section, for example, on Chicago's Southside Writers
Club, which provided a structure through which Black writers could debate
the complex of issues that motivated their writing. Here we see how the
collective effort of debating these issues with one another and reading
each others' work resulted in richer writing by individuals, both those who
were Party members, and those who were not.
Here Wald makes one of his most valuable points. Through structures like
the Southside Writers Club, or the John Reed Clubs, or the countless other
organizations and magazines and forums its members supported, the Party
"furnished a focus and theme, a potential audience and venues for
publication for writers who might otherwise have gone unpublished" or
remained in isolation from each other.
Thus, Wald can conclude not just that some of these committed writers
actually produced good writing, but that CP writers and those in the
Party's orbit made a profoundly important contribution to twentieth-century
U.S. culture. In fact, he argues, we should think not of individuals who
benefited from working in or near the Party, but rather in terms of a
"Communist cultural tradition."
Studying this tradition can yield valuable models for how to nourish and
celebrate the culture of our contemporary movement. Wald's book, written in
clear language and an accessible style, is a great tool for doing this.
It's something you'll want to read.
Louise Michel can be reached at pww at pww.org.
Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org
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